Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Top Five Reasons to Put Sweat Equity into a Rental Property

5.  Exercise, or choosing "Chop Wood Carry Water" work outside in the yard over the tedium of weight rooms and exercise machines.  Void in case of heart attack.

4.  Economics, or living beyond our means on a special acre of Santa Barbara canyon land by keeping the landlord happy.

3.  Space, or getting away from the wife into the yard where I make the decisions.  Most of the decisions.

2.  Place, or living here, enjoying the beautiful landscape, and contemplating the ecological metaphor of renting.

1.  Joy, or indulging my working class fetish that grunt work on a beautiful and unique property is satisfying. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Morality According to Wall Street

In a couple articles in The Times about Occupy Wall Street, David Brooks gives a moderate version of the same moral argument heard from the hysterical right.  He too blames the losers, though the moderate version is more of an invitation to “responsible” adults to condemn the protesters as irresponsible whiners scapegoating the rich for their own problems.   

According to Brooks, those of us left behind by the Wall Street coup on our economy and our democracy should shut up about profits and class and corruption.  Instead we should look to our own lives and solve our own problems by working harder and harder and harder in order to consume without debt.  Meanwhile we should leave the distribution of  the wealth we create through our hard work to moderate Wall Street and Washington types who, like father, know best.  

The one moral claim protesters want heard remains out of bounds:  The system of money and power is unfair.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reading Habermas

Robin spends her days zooming around town picking up linens and dropping off used flower vases,  She meets with anxiously beautiful brides and their beautifully anxious moms.  She helps them make decisions about flowers, photographers, caterers, musicians, and so on—incredibly detailed decisions that involve things like coordinating the color of the flowers and food and linens and so on with the color of the bride’s eyes.  Then she comes home to her office to call florists and photographers and caterers and so on, and to keep track of it all on papers organized in files according to date and the color of the bride’s eyes.  When she walks in the door exhausted and in a hurry to get to work and meet a deadline, she sees me sitting on my ass reading philosophy.  Been there all day.  Day after day.   For weeks.  Good thing I did the dishes.

For the first time since graduate school, I’m reading a lot of philosophy; and for the first time in my life, I’ve set myself a program of reading a large chunk of a philosopher’s oeuvre, four and a half books approaching 2,000 pages so far.  To support my position that sitting on my ass all day is not vacation, I’ll say that 1) reading Habermas is hard work, and worth some hard work for its insights into everyday life.  Reading Habermas also 2) takes me back to what could have been a brilliant intellectual career if I’d read Habermas twenty years ago.  Finally and most significant for my defense, 3) it’s opened up new writing ambitions.


Proof that reading Habermas is hard:  I’m constantly stopping to use the internet, not only to take a break from holding all those philosophical balls in the air at the same time, but also to check up on some half-forgotten or half-learned philosophical term, or research one of the many thinkers I never read like Weber or Durkheim or barely even heard of like G.H. Mead or Talcott Parsons.   I’m sure learning a lot, not only about Habermas but about the history of philosophy.  Habermas draws upon everything that has ever been written, and he aims to explain every aspect of our species from the combined perspectives of philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology, art history, literary analysis, and etcetera. 
It’s hard but it’s worth it, especially since his basic concepts are very practical and recognizable in people’s everyday lives.  His main purpose is to rescue us all from the dominance of thinking about money and power, and instead celebrate more human and moral ways of thinking. He calls it “system” versus “life world.”  Think Wall Street versus Occupy Wall Street.  I might even argue at some point that Habermas’s theory of communication is a theory of love.


Reading Habermas brings back the ambition of the old days, back when I thought I might make a more significant contribution to scholarship.  I lost that ambition back in the painful 90s, as I slowly awakened to the reality that trying to get a job as a scholar was like banging my head against the wall.  It felt much better to stop, yet I didn’t know how.  I was that guy in the old joke:

A young man runs away with the circus because he wanted to be in show business.  Years later, his brother catches up with him, witnesses his job cleaning up after the elephants, and exclaims, “You spend all day knee deep in elephant shit.  You don’t have to do this.  Quit!”  

The guy responds, “What! And leave show business?!”  

Despite the bitter delight in such irony, my professional woes continued for a long time.  Even after I landed in Santa Barbara and got my personal life back together, I couldn’t live with myself as a second-class academic, a poorly paid teacher rather than a respected scholar.  So I left academe altogether.  

It wasn’t six months before I wanted my old job back.  Took me five years to get it, and five years more to return to philosophy.

In retrospect, I’m feeling that—with my blue-collar pedigree, my preference for spending time with family and friends, my satisfaction with woodworking and gardening projects, my taste for the bitters, and my increasingly principled aversion to spending 18 hours a day sitting on my ass reading everything that’s ever been written—I’ve done about as well as I have a right to expect.  I love my job these days.  I’ve become a damned good teacher, and I relish the six weeks it allows me to sit around reading Habermas.


I’ve embarked on some concrete writing projects that reading Habermas enables.  

(a)     I came to Habermas first from my scholarly frustration with genre theory in American composition studies.  I hoped to gain the conceptual ammunition to launch a comprehensive attack on genre theory, American Pragmatism, and Composition Studies as a discipline that fails to distinguish between practical and instrumental reason, remains blind to the systemic sources of power and hegemony in our society, and thus fails to satisfy its own liberatory aims.  I also hoped to gain from Habermas a communicative practice that doesn’t make me sound like an asshole, always a problem. 

(b)   I also came to Habermas hoping to explicate the failure of the environmental movement to initiate the changes it clamors for.  Habermas might help at least to explain the problem as life-world versus system.  Accordingly, the eco-problem is not simply a matter of convincing people to do the eco-right thing.  As an idea, sustainability has already achieved consensus; no one really wants to trash the planet.  In the life-world, environmentalism rules.  Yet the economic and political system continues to trash the planet.  In short, from Habermas’s perspective, the environmental movement becomes part of the larger effort to make the system more responsive to human concerns.  I could elaborate this somehow in relation to environmental texts like Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption.  But what I’m really hoping is that I will discover among Habermas’s later essays one that deals directly with environmental issues.  That way I can simply read it and save myself the trouble of original thought, even of the derivative, secondary literature, apply-some-really-major-thinker’s-ideas way. 

(c)    I’m also thinking that perhaps my real destiny is in articulating how academic theory offers insight into everyday life. Last year I spent a good part of my six weeks of concentrated writing and research working on a project that aimed to make literary analysis relevant to a non-academic audience.  I focused on a little artsy film called Get Low and planned to work up a series of interpretive readings from different theoretical perspectives, each one more ambitious than the one before—pop-cultural, moral, political, socio-economic, philosophical, and so on.  The idea was to treat the non-academic audience as smart and wisely grounded in life, though with no time to waste on academic specializations, and to treat academics like me as ass-sitting arrogant windbags, too specialized and professionalized and focused on mental masturbation—in short, too unwisely ungrounded in life—to realize that we were saying some pretty profound stuff.  I wrote two interpretations and posted them on my blog as parts 1 and 2 of “The Low Down on Get Low.”  I’m pretty sure no one read the posts.

Undaunted—or unintelligent—I’ve been thinking of taking up the project again in light of reading Habermas.  His thinking opens up whole new possibilities.  I figure that I could incorporate Habermas’s really smart way of looking at everything into my own brand of blarney (or McHughing), focus it all on popular culture texts or phenomena like Occupy Wall Street, address it to an intelligent public audience, and ramble on about whatever I feel like, movies and morality, the environment and the market, love and happiness.  I could spout all kinds of world-healing wisdom.  

Whether I’ll have any actual readers for any of these writing projects is entirely another question.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Blarney in "The Guard"

The new Irish film, The Guard, opens with a horrific car accident on a narrow stone bridge west of Galway, the very same bridge we drove across last March when we were a bit lost, a long quarter-mile bridge barely wide enough for one car.  We crossed in the wrong direction without incident, but on the way back we faced disaster:  a car coming in the opposite direction, moving fast, not about to stop or slow down or even care.  I remember how we all collectively drew deep breaths to make the car smaller and closed our eyes to summon the Bridge Fairie, and thereby squeezed by unscathed.  Great times.

The movie too is a great time, hilarious as blarney.  The fat Irish cop, Boyle, is constantly messing with the expectations of everyone else in the film, especially the American FBI cop played by Don Cheadle.   Boyle feigns veracity or sincerity or ignorance just for fun, acting the racist to get a rise out of the black cop, or claiming to have finished fourth in an Olympic swim meet.  Rather than just saying the truth, Boyle plays around with it, leaving the Cheadle character guessing.  “I can’t tell if you’re incredibly fucking stupid or incredibly fucking smart,” he says, showing that he understands blarney perfectly.  It ensures that neither truth nor the self be taken too seriously.  Boyle’s performance of blarney reminds us that we’re all full of it. 

Just as Boyle presents himself to the American, The Guard presents itself to its audience as pure blarney.  It features a surprisingly flawed and likeably human hero: Boyle is a clown cop with the heart of gold who delights in whores, trips on LSD,  runs guns to the IRA, and gets the bad guy.  It also features surprisingly intellectual and self-aware and thus human bad guys.  The cold-blooded professional killer yearns to settle down with one woman; the socio-path quotes Nietzsche on command.  Kind of like The Commitments meets Pulp Fiction, the film plays around with the action/suspense genre even as it fulfills its moral/emotional demands.  In this mocking performance of its genre, it calls attention to its own artifice, its blarney, and it invites the audience to see that the genre as a whole is blarney, and maybe film and culture and life in general are blarney, which is either incredibly fucking stupid or incredibly fucking smart.

The tourist books say, “Blarney is the attempt to deceive without causing harm.”  Habermas might say that blarney works by intentionally disrupting the assumptions normally necessary for communication.  The resulting humor, once the audience gets it, and I’m not sure Habermas would get it, results in even deeper mutual understanding, because it demonstrates that the assumptions and expectations grounding everyday conversation might be wrong.  In short, blarney communicates a deeper mutual understanding by evoking the fallibility of human communication and understanding.  We all get along better when we know that our truths are blarney.

In this way, Irish humor evokes the poststructural distrust of language evident in Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault.  Language is the medium of meaning, where truth and desire, the objective world and other people, conscious and unconscious experiences become symbolically structured.  Poststuctural French thinkers explore the limits of language, where symbolic structures break down, the gap between language and whatever it attempts to structure symbolically, the idea that language cannot fully articulate truth or desire or the world or experience or the other.  There arises the supplement, the excess, the remainder escaping symbolic structure, rendering meaning forever uncertain.  Thus, both blarney and French philosophy evoke the fallibility of human communication and understanding. 

The difference between blarney and French philosophy is that blarney joyfully understands this fallibility from the beginning, while the French eventually find joy in the end.  The French are teleological, concerned with the ultimate end; or rather, they are anti-teleological, concerned to show that language, meaning, desire never reaches its end, always remains incomplete, uncertain, unsatisfied.  They typically locate the possibility of jouissance in the gap/remainder at the end, the far limit of language and meaning and desire, realizing only at the end that the gap/remainder that was always there always will be there.  By contrast, blarney takes impish delight in knowing itself as blarney from the beginning.  As the speaker knows and the audience laughingly discovers, blarney is always already blarney; that’s why it’s fun. 

My friend Bob says this difference can be explained historically.  The French were European powers, colonists, who discovered only at the end of the colonial process that their imperialist way of thinking was bankrupt at best, a violence toward the other, the world, and the self.   The Irish, of course, were themselves colonized and knew from the beginning that empire and its ideology were shite.

For his part, Habermas has more faith in language, or more precisely faith in communication, coming to mutual understanding through rational communicative action.  His style is to read everything that’s ever been written and integrate it all into his argument, as if everything that has ever been written amounted to one great conversation that comes together in his own model.  Fortunately, he is sure to admit from the beginning that he is constructing a model.  He knows it’s all blarney, but he’s giving it a go anyway, because that’s what we do; we  try to understand and to communicate.  Habermas also implicitly invites the reader to join in the blarney and help construct or reconstruct the model.  All we have to do is read everything that’s ever been written.  In this sense, German scholarship may be more reliable, but not as much fun. 

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